I’d heard nothing but rave reviews about this book since its publication six months ago. When I finally started it this past week, I was immediately discombobulated. That’s because I’d heard literally nothing else but raving praise; I hadn’t heard, for example, what it was about. So let’s start there.
The main character and narrator is a sentient spaceship named the Justice of Toren. It belongs to the Radchaai, a barbaric race of people whose entire economy depends on invading other planets, killing or enslaving their people, and then laying claim to their natural resources. Of course, since the Justice of Toren is a Radch ship, the narrator finds the zombification and murder of their enemies to be a normal and not horrifying occurrence. At least, that is, until it’s forced to do something awful and kind of wakes up.
Interspersed with this storyline is another following Breq—one of Justice of Toren’s ancillaries—some 25 years in the future. The usual way of life for an ancillary (or “corpse soldier”) is that they are human bodies entirely controlled by the artificial intelligence of the ship they belong to. They think as the ship, but feel what each of their dozens of bodies feels. Breq, however, has become separated from Justice of Toren and is pursuing an ex-captain of herself (I think) along the way toward obtaining a supremely powerful gun that might or might not kill the Lord of Radch.
Got all that? I’m not sure that I do, and that’s part of my problem with this book.
It’s not that I dislike complex world-building, it’s that Leckie doesn’t seem interested in clarifying this complex world. A great deal of the first chapters of the book are devoted to the intricacies of pronoun translation—the Radchaai language does not have gender pronouns (though they do seem to have genders, which is confusing), so the ship refers to everyone as “she,” whether they are male or female.
This is a good example of the problem I have with this novel. It’s not the nuts and bolts (although there are a lot of holes for such a widely praised novel), it’s the way in which Leckie does her world-building through her narrator. This novel is about a robot that develops remorse about the horrific actions it is ordered to do, and through that remorse, develops its own desires to correct the situation. In essence, it wants to save the universe.
Throughout the opening sections, there is no personality evident in the ship at all. Throughout all of the gender pronoun discussion, the AI (or Breq, its body) does not care about the actual genders of the people it meets, it only cares about whether it gets the pronoun right so the person it’s talking to doesn’t figure out it’s Radchaai, because nobody likes Radchaai. Partly, this seems like an offshoot of Leckie’s decision not to come out and say that Breq is an AI, but instead let you discover that fact for yourself through a series of very robotic actions.
But the fact is that Breq is not a standard AI, it’s an AI with feelings and strong desires, and these opening scenes are the culmination of a 20-year mission for vengeance. Very little of that came through for me. Instead I got an overwhelming dose of robot-thought, which is not only counter-productive to the crux of the book’s philosophical climax, it’s utterly boring. The AI is horribly devoid of humor, and, for something that’s supposed to have emotions, it shows very little in the way of empathy, or caring, or personality. That’s probably good for the near-omniscient bot that flies your ships and executes your orders, but very very bad for the protagonist of a novel.
That’s not to say that Leckie doesn’t deliver some quite good pieces of sci-fi thought. For instance, the AIs that control Radchaai ships were given emotions in the first place in order to help them make decisions faster. Without emotions, the AI says, even the smallest, most inconsequential decisions must be made by analyzing reams of data. With emotions, they pick the choice that feels better. That’s a pretty good starting point for an exploration of humanity and whether emotions create morality.
Unfortunately, Leckie spends the vast majority of the novel detailing the robotic half of the emotional/robotic AI, and in so doing makes the actual sentence-by-sentence experience of her novel dry and humorless to the point of boredom. It’s a decent novel with a few very good points, but far from the superb book it’s been reported to be.
This is also the first book in a trilogy, and unfortunately it’s one of those trilogies that won’t find a conclusion in this first volume. The action begins to heat up toward the end of the novel, but it’s unfinished ending doesn’t satisfy.